Interview: Kimberly Kreines & Melissa Li of Magic: The Gathering

The Creative Designers on their path to becoming planeswalkers

Starting off in 1993, Magic: The Gathering is a card game with 20 million players (and counting), $14,000 cards and thanks to a bunch of ace women like Lady Planeswalkers and The Girlfriend Bracket, it’s becoming less bro-central and more Magic-for-everyone. Whilst we’ve already chatted to some of the women of Magic: The Gathering – the players – we wanted to dive into the background; the process of how these cards come to be and what’s next for them.

So, we caught up with Kimberly Kreines and Melissa Li – two Creative Designers at Magic: The Gathering (and Dungeons & Dragons) headquarters Wizards of the Coast. Here, they talk about their introduction to the game, their process for producing new characters and the changing face of the industry.

Hi both! Can you tell us how you became involved in Magic? Were you a player before? Are you a player now?

Kimberly: It was a dark and stormy night… no seriously, it was; Wisconsin (where I’m from) has almost as many of those as Seattle. But to the point, on this particular dark and stormy night I was playing games with my Board Game Group – Settlers of Catan, if I remember correctly. However, that night I was less invested in exactly how many sheep I was getting for my carefully controlled wheat monopoly, and more interested in the subset of my friends who were squirrelled away in the corner with little packages of what I could only assume was treasure based on the reverence with which they handled them and their intermittent squeals of joy.

“I emerged bleary-eyed and a bit dishevelled from a weekend of complete immersion into Magic: the Gathering”

When the game ended, I approached the scene for further investigation. As it turned out, I was right in my assumption. They did have treasure. At least that’s how I felt a few days later when I emerged bleary-eyed and a bit dishevelled from a weekend of complete immersion into Magic: the Gathering. It might sound cheesy, but Magic was everything I was looking for in a game that I didn’t know how to ask for. It was challenging, it was ever-evolving, and it was engaging, beautiful, and fun. I was instantly addicted.

Image © Wizards of the Coast

I’ve played nearly every weekend (and many, many weeknights) ever since. And, yes! I still play! All the time. At work, to playtest cards and new mechanics (which is mind-blowingly awesome—still can’t believe I get to do that!). With friends (a lot from work) on the weekends, drafting, cubing, Commandering, etc. And at home with my husband whenever we feel like it.

Mel: Magic and I go way back! I picked up at first in middle school, and I fell in love with the windows into all of the different characters and environments. More recently it’s become one of my favorite ways to hang out and have conversations over casual games, whether with strangers or with friends. There’s something intensely personal and satisfying to me about face-to-face games, and Magic is one where your gameplay style and decks can help you understand the other person even better. It’s a game with a fantastic community associated with it, and I’m proud to be part of it!

How much creative freedom do you have with your work at Wizards?

Kimberly: I feel very lucky to work at Wizards. It’s a company that invites and supports creativity from its employees. As a creative designer, that’s what I get to do all day: create. That’s not to say that every idea I come up with gets used, or that my ideas don’t change, morph or shift even when they do get picked up. But it is to say that I have the freedom to propose whatever it is that tickles my fancy. We all do.

Each of us comes to our worldbuilding meetings with a cache of ideas for new races, societies, and planes, we arrive at story planning with thoughts about plot points and character arcs, and we come to design sessions with brainstorms about crazy mechanics and insane one-off cards. Some of those ideas stick, some don’t, but more get to go through the brilliant process of collaboration.

“It’s some tough but exciting work make all of these different expressions fun and interwoven, and we’re given a lot of freedom to make it possible.”

For most things that we make (from worlds, to characters, to stories, to card sets), it would be quite difficult once we’ve arrived at a final version to go back and pick out who contributed what. And why would we want to? The final product is great, and we know that we all played a part in making it so. When we work together, we become sort of a hive-creative-mind.

The meetings that are the most fun are the ones where one person says something, which triggers an idea for someone else, which cascades into three more ideas, and then spiders out into a full-blown useable component. The shared sense of accomplishment and pride when you know you’ve hit something awesome just can’t be beat. I would say we have both creative freedom and an incredible amount of creative support. I have never once felt stifled, or stuck. On the contrary, my team has on numerous occasions helped me break free of writer’s block and improve my work.

Mel: Starting with sets released this year, we’ve unveiled a new approach to our art and story elements that lets players experience them in a lot of different ways. So within Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch you can see and play with story elements expressed through the set’s physical cards, play in our Duels digital game, or read about in our Uncharted Realms story series. It’s some tough but exciting work make all of these different expressions fun and interwoven, and we’re given a lot of freedom to make it possible.

Story team is intensely collaborative, so we tend to make big decisions about worlds and characters together, though we craft the details of each of their stories individually. That said, we also have creative leads for each of our sets and specific team members who are very active in the formation and development of important characters.

Image © Wizards of the Coast

You both have scientific backgrounds – what led you to your roles now? Does your background in science help at all?

Kimberly: My career path has been circuitous and adventurous, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I started out as a biomedical engineer, working to design ipsilateral brain computer interface devices (think computers that can talk directly to your brain). I loved what I did, but often caught my mind wandering.

As I was programing algorithms to decode neuronal signals, I would also be daydreaming about possible science fiction-esque uses for the devices we were making. It wasn’t long before I began writing these mind ramblings down, and not long after that that they started to coalesce into stories.

At some point I realised that writing down those mind ramblings was actually my true passion, and that’s when I went back to school for my MFA in creative writing. I knew I wanted to tell stories, ponder life, science, and the human condition, and share my ponderings with others, but I didn’t know what form that would take. I had a lot of false starts and failures, a lot of hearing the word “no,” and a lot, a lot, a lot of writing, practicing the craft, and throwing away thousands of pages (over a decade of it!) before I ended up at Wizards on the story team.

I’ve been asked if, looking back, I wish I would have just studied creative writing from the start. But the answer is no. I love where I ended up, but I also love how I got here. Part of what makes me the writer I am—the person I am—is my hard science background. I still spend many a morning reading science journals, articles, and symposium synopses.

And the things I read and learn bubble up constantly in my writing. My characters, worlds, and plots are informed by my study and background both consciously and subconsciously. The hard science and math I know is also invaluable when it comes to game design, playtesting, and analysis of game strategy. I feel quite lucky to have a job where I get to exercise both my passion for math and science and that for writing.

Mel: Prior to my time at Magic: The Gathering, I’d been working as a research scientist in medical diagnostics for nearly ten years. I loved my work, but because it was research I never got the interpersonal satisfaction of interacting with the people who would eventually get to use it. One of the great joys of this new job is that I get to interact a lot with Magic’s community through my work, and I always appreciate their feedback (whether good or bad) on what they like and what could be improved.

My academic background is in engineering, a discipline which emphasizes the process of observation, ingenuity, improvement and growth—all principles which I think are helpful for creative professionals.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Oath of the Gatewatch collection?

Mel: The Oath of the Gatewatch is the continuation of the Battle for Zendikar expansion. Our story is set on the wild plane of Zendikar, where otherworldly monsters known as the Eldrazi are laying waste to the land and threaten to spread to other planes of the Multiverse. The plane’s inhabitants, and the land itself, have risen up to resist the Eldrazi, but fight a losing battle.

To attempt to turn the tide of battle, four powerful individuals known as Planeswalkers have sworn an oath to protect Zendikar and the Multiverse from present and future threats. The cards themselves in the set have new mechanics (Cohort and Surge) that reflect the people of Zendikar and the Planeswalkers joining together to defend Zendikar. Meanwhile we are also using colourless mana as a way to express the ways that the Eldrazi have laid waste to Zendikar’s plane.

Image © Wizards of the Coast

Do you think having more women involved behind-the-scenes is encouraging more women to play the game?

Kimberly: I sure hope so! Magic is a great game, and it’s a game for everyone. So anything that encourages more people to play from all backgrounds is a plus in my book. I want to see a world where all people have feel welcome and excited to play the game, read the stories, and get immersed in the world.

Mel: Absolutely! One of the things I always admired about Magic, ever since I started playing, was the number of women represented in cards and on the creative work behind the cards that was visible in the art and story of the game. And they were women who were good at a lot of things, they were artificers who built wondrous objects, they were clever mages, strong warriors. They weren’t just passive, pretty faces. At the time I started playing, this was a rare occurrence in other fantasy, and I personally found it inspiring and empowering.

Do you have a lot of say about the characters? Have you noticed more equality coming through in recent years?

Kimberly: Just like worldbuilding, storytelling, and card creation, the characters we make are a team effort. We collaborate, and we go through multiple iterations before settling on something. As we’re making new characters now, one of our goals is to reach the most broad audience we can by giving everyone someone they can relate to or see themselves in in our character line up. This is a process, and we know we have a long way to go before we reach our goal, but I’m proud to work on a team that cares about things like that.

And it’s not just about what we want to see creatively, but also about what the card set needs. We have to be cognisant of the way a character’s colour-pie colour will impact the work Design and Development is doing with the character card. We also have to pay attention to power suites that Design and Development want to utilise, and then work with them to create a character who can believably wield these powers. Oftentimes it’s a back and forth process, which is great, because with each iteration the character becomes sweeter, deeper, and more real.

“One of our goals is to reach the most broad audience we can by giving everyone someone they can relate to”

Mel: As a team we, along with the Art team, have a lot of say in how the characters are designed. We strive to depict different races and gender identities in a variety of roles and make sure that our players know that our fantasy is made for them, whoever they are and whatever they look like. We certainly have seen a lot more of this coming through in recent years, and we have a lot of exciting things in the months and years to come.

Image © Wizards of the Coast

Kimberly – how do you ‘get inside’ a character’s head? What’s your process?

Kimberly: This question comes at an excellent time. I just handed the first draft of a new story off to my team. The story was about a character who has never been written about before, so I faced the very circumstance of “getting into a new character’s head” just this past week. I didn’t know who this person was, I didn’t know what their voice sounded like, and I didn’t know what they cared about.

The one thing I did know was where they lived. So I started with that seed. I think that’s how I usually start, with one known component, be it a character trait, a setting detail, a plot idea, or something as simple as an intriguing object. Then I build out from there.

With this particular character I built out from the setting, thinking about what it would be like to live where they lived, what they might do for a living, who they might talk to, what they might enjoy, despise, love, and/or fear about their home. As I figured these things out about the character, I started also to see how the character should influence the plot. In this story, I built out the character arc and plot together and they ended up being inextricably intertwined, which worked quite well for this piece.

“It’s an awesome process, but never the same—which is part of the reason it’s so beautiful”

But even when I felt pretty satisfied with who the character was and how the story was shaping up, I wasn’t happy with the voice. I wrote four drafts of the story before I settled on a voice for the character that I really liked. I had to hear them talk to others, think to themselves, and react to the world around them before I really knew how they should sound.

It was a fun process, and each time I wrote a draft I learned something new about the character, discovered a better way to describe a certain scene, or even once stumbled upon an exciting plot twist, which I then worked in. With every draft I got to know the character better. I didn’t stop until I felt like I could write hundreds of pages from their point of view. Then I knew that the pages I did write would feel authentic. That’s what I always aim for. And now the draft is off to my team, who have already been providing invaluable feedback, which will go into further refining this character and their voice. It’s an awesome process, but never the same—which is part of the reason it’s so beautiful.

Have you noticed a shift in attitudes towards women working within the industry?

Kimberly: I haven’t worked in the gaming industry or at Wizards for long enough to have noticed a shift per se, but what I can say is that I have never been treated with anything other than respect, camaraderie, and kindness here. I don’t feel like I’m defined by being a woman, but rather by my talents, skills, and love of the Green Bay Packers (had to throw that one in there, Go Pack Go!). More seriously, I am aware of the struggles and hardships many women in the industry do face. While that deeply saddens me, I am optimistic, as I see examples every day of all people learning to see past all kinds of classifications and to the soul at the heart of each person.

Mel: This one is tough for me to answer since I’m still less than a year into my first job in the industry, so I have little to look back on. I will say that during this time I have had nothing but positive experiences within my team and with my company.

Want to know more? Check out our interview with some of the women who play and love Magic.